In 2014, the International Digital Publishing Forum executive director, Bill McCoy, spoke to PW about the organization’s goals, influence, and success in advocating for accessibility in publishing and how ePub 3 will push its agenda forward. Chennai-based digital solutions provider AEL Data added to the conversation with examples of digital talking books, braille titles, and Section 508–compliant projects and with the progress on its dyslexic-friendly e-reader DysLektz. To get an update on the state of digital accessibility, we spoke to several digital solutions providers in 2018 about the newest developments and some of the projects they have been working on.

What comes across loud and clear is the push to produce “born accessible” content right from the start alongside other print and digital formats. As the nonprofit organization Benetech, which operates Bookshare, the largest library of accessible e-books in the world, succinctly states on its website, “If content is ‘born digital,’ it can—and should—be ‘born accessible.’ ” Generating born accessible content from the get-go certainly makes sense in terms of strategy, cost, and process.

Digital equality is the goal, says Mahesh Balakrishnan, executive v-p at DiacriTech. “In this age of advanced technologies, publishers are focused on an engaging-all-audiences strategy through accessible solutions,” Balakrishnan says. “For us and others in the digital solutions industry, this means offering world-class services that include creating born accessible content as well as transforming existing documents into accessible formats.”

Marianne Calilhanna, marketing director at Cenveo Publisher Services, says that overlooking accessibility “is akin to ignoring mobile optimization in 2014. When accessibility is well executed, it can expand readership and provide a higher quality user experience. It also helps publishers with the rapidly growing area of voice search while keeping content nimble for future repurposing. Increasingly, search engines and consumers are pushing back on static content.”

Publishers “are still working on validating the business drivers for accessibility and ensuring that the costs make sense in terms of their P&Ls,” Calilhanna says. “We will look back one day and compare this to the early days of XML, when publishers were trying to justify the costs of structured content. Today, XML is a no-brainer. It is a similar situation for accessibility, particularly when accessibility is just an extension of structured content.”

A Bumpy Road Ahead

Unfortunately, true accessibility still has a long way to go, says Uday Majithia, assistant v-p in technology services and presales at Impelsys. “An online screen reader may not have accessibility-compliant notes and highlights features and may not handle book navigation and presentation of complex data such as tables and mathematical equations,” Majithia says. “These may be due to issues in digital rights management and proprietary formatting and the lack of standards in platforms. So the industry needs to evolve to provide true accessibility.”

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, still under study, addresses the accessibility requirements of people with cognitive and learning disabilities, low vision, and mobility impairment, Majithia says. “This may set off a new set of standards that will serve the complex accessibility requirements of the latest platforms and content.” Every platform or mobile app that Impelsys builds, Majithia says, “has all the accessibility requirements to make it easier for impaired and aged users to access, navigate, and read or watch content.”

A strong comprehension of the four principles of WCAG 2.0—namely, that content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust—and how these principles apply to different types of content is critical, says Rahul Arora, CEO of MPS Limited. “This understanding,” Arora says, “coupled with an extensive experience in areas such as e-learning, animations, interactivities, and simulations, has enabled our design and programming team to provide end-to-end solutions to clients for their accessibility requirements.”

Still, accessibility is not the default mode of publishing today, though it should be, says Ravi Venkataramani, the cofounder and CEO of Exeter Premedia Services. “The challenge lies not with the intent: all publishers and researchers do want to make their publications accessible to a wider audience,” Venkataramani says. “Even technological capability is no longer lagging, to a large extent. We have systems today that can produce content accessible to anyone with visual, aural, learning, or language challenges.”

What is lacking “is quality input in the form of significant amounts of alternate text, metadata, rich audio, and video content that enriches the understanding of a subject,” Venkataramani says. “Today, these enrichments are created after the peer-review process. It would have been much more effective to have authors themselves provide this supplemental information when their article goes into production.”

Furthermore, Venkataramani finds that involving authors in the effort to enrich the content “makes it more meaningful to a larger audience—not just those with accessibility challenges—and enhances the depth of understanding of the subject for all readers. This will help make producing accessible content in a standardized and sustained manner the norm and will increase the reach of articles manifold.”

Sriram Subramanya, the founder and CEO of Integra Software Services, believes that “accessibility has become a part of the content development process and that it will soon become mandatory, to comply with relevant governmental legislations.” Accessibility requirements, Subramanya says, will become more device-specific in the coming months.

For Westchester Publishing Services, expansion into the educational space and its large presence in the academic market means that accessibility has become a more frequently discussed topic with clients. “For many of our publishing clients, the accessibility requirements—while still on a horizon that may feel a bit far away—have outpaced their ability to keep up with what is required of them,” says chief revenue officer Tyler Carey. “For our part, we have an internal task force for evaluating the requirements, options, and policy so that we can tailor the solutions to different markets and products, and we are working proactively with clients to adhere to the standards and, wherever possible, to plan ahead of the curve.”

At TNQ, whose publishing platforms—Proof Central, Page Central, and AuthorCafé—are browser-based (and browsers are increasingly accessibility-compliant), adhering to the guidelines and delivering accessible content is not an issue. “To add greater value to our UX/UI accessibility efforts, we have partnered with a U.K.-based agency for assessments and reports on our products, which are used by millions of researchers around the world,” says CEO Abhigyan Arun, whose team has been advising its client base to move away from print-centric solutions such as PDFs in view of the increasing accessibility compliance of browsers.

One thing is for sure: more publishers require data to be born accessible and want their backlist content to be reworked to include accessibility features, says Maran Elancheran, president of Newgen KnowledgeWorks. Newgen has a special accessibility division to monitor developments in the area and amend its workflows accordingly. “There has been an increase in lawsuits related to noncompliance in recent months,” Elancheran says, “and this will certainly accelerate the accessibility movement.”

Newgen’s accessibility services, says Elancheran, cover three broad categories: digital accessibility auditing (i.e., evaluating websites and providing a road map for achieving full accessibility in compliance with WCAG 2.0), alternate text solutions (i.e., describing graphical and visual elements within a text), and born accessible consulting (i.e., integrating accessibility into publishing processes that will guarantee fully accessible frontlist titles and websites). “Our subject matter experts create the alternate text and long descriptions for images in accordance with WCAG 2.0 and AA guidelines,” Elancheran says. “We do not use an automated system to create the alternate text.”

Complex Project Requirements

Earlier this year, Calilhanna and her team at Cenveo Publisher Services started helping Georgetown Law School with accessibility for its content. Anna Selden, associate director of journals and publications at Georgetown Law, says, “We are committed to accessibility from the moral viewpoint. We have incorporated accessibility measures into our current workflow and are exploring the best method for making legacy content accessible.”

Creating Section 508–compliant products is the goal, but it is not as straightforward as it sounds, Selden says. “Legal content has particular challenges due to the number of footnotes in the text. We want to provide a seamless reading experience for the visually impaired and be conscious of not interrupting the flow of narrative while remaining observant of the importance of footnotes.” The Cenveo team uses JavaScript to display footnote text in pop-up windows, and once the footnote text is read, the reader can continue reading without further disruption.

At Lapiz Digital Services, delivery of accessibility-compliant PDFs has exceeded 50,000 pages in the past year. “NIMAS and alternate text generation are common requests,” president V. Bharathram says, “and we have an expert team—assisted by full-time, part-time, and freelance personnel—who knows the nuances of working on such projects.” Most are college textbooks on science, engineering, and mathematics, Bharathram says. “But even before Section 508 compliance came into effect, many publishers who had moved to XML workflows were already generating accessibility-compliant PDFs as a by-product. So the projects we received were mostly those published prior to this XML shift.”

Projects involving accessibility requirements are definitely increasing, says Arora, of MPS. “These include a larger influx of requests for alternate text writing and closed captioning for audio and video content and for accessible PDFs and PPTs. More importantly, there is a heavier focus on accessible digital products. Our team has been carrying out accessibility gap analysis regarding WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 compliance ,and presenting findings reports together with third-party tool readings and recommendations for achieving compliance.”

For one project that recently landed at Continuum Content Solutions, the client needed article-level XML files in RGB color format to be created from high-resolution CMYK print PDFs of magazines and newspapers. “We converted 8,000 to 9,000 pages within three hours of receipt, and the content was produced in alternative formats for people with special needs,” company founder and CEO Amit Vohra says. Another project, also involving creating accessible PDFs for magazines from print PDFs, was further challenged by the presence of tabular data on the pages. “The reading order assignment is critical for accessibility, and all tables must be formatted properly during the PDF creation process,” Vohra says.

There is an increased demand for video descriptions, especially in statistics, accounting, and STM content, says Balakrishnan of DiacriTech, whose company kick-started its accessible solutions back in 2005 with NIMAS conversions, braille, large print, and audio books for K–12 publishers. “For print and related deliveries, our patent-pending XML-first workflow comes in handy, as it auto-generates NIMAS, accessible web PDFs, and ePub files,” Balakrishnan says. “One client, not aware of our workflow, was delighted when we delivered his urgently required NIMAS files for grades 6 to 9 within three days. We even delivered those files to the National Instructional Materials Access Center on his behalf.”

Having worked on accessibility solutions for more than two years, Subramanya, of Integra Software Services, says that his team has built expertise in areas such as alternate text creation and integration, color contrast ratio, and accessibility auditing and implementation. “We have expertise in WCAG 2.0 and most of the international accessibility standards,” Subramanya says. “Our accessibility compliance begins at the content-creation-and-design phase instead of being integrated as an add-on at a later stage or incorporated only based on client requirements. This is how we want to go about achieving full and true accessibility.”